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Book Review: Black Iris by Elliot Wake

Black IrisBlack Iris by Leah Raeder
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Dear Reader, if you’re searching for a story about a down-and-out little queer girl coming-of-age and blossoming as she discovers her sexuality in college, then look somewhere else. This is not the candy-coated New Adult love story for you. BLACK IRIS isn’t a love story. It’s a revenge story. And it’s about the girl who took charge and got exactly what she wanted. But maybe what she wanted just wasn’t enough.


BLACK IRIS takes place over alternating timelines, which are meticulously crafted to the point of perfection. They switch between Laney Keating’s senior year of high school to her freshman year of college. At college, she meets Blythe McKinney and Armin Farhoudi, two upperclassmen who know the ins and outs of the club scene at Umbra. We see how the trio first meets and how the relationship boundaries are drawn. You’re left questioning throughout the novel if the relationships are real or empty. Do these people care about each other, or is it one big conspiracy to see who can cut the deepest? I won’t spoil it, but I will say that—no matter the pairing—it’s intense.

As with most of Elliot Wake’s novels, everything comes together in the final twenty-percent to provide a twist-and-turns conclusion that will leave you shaking your head and questioning everything you thought you knew. The reader finds themselves transforming into one of Laney Keating’s victims as they navigate the vast spider web of her unreliable narration. Don’t make the mistake of falling prey to her sticky lies. Do so and you’ll be trapped, sucked into the story so intensely that it will shatter every expectation you’ve ever had for the New Adult genre.

Wake has a way of taking LGBTQ+ and social issues, incorporating them into a book, and not make it an issue-book. The issues are the b-story whereas the a-story is what drives you to tap out the edge of the Kindle while belting out Halsey’s Strange Love (for Blythe in so many ways) and Hold Me Down (looking at you in your three piece, Armin).

It took me three different attempts to make it all the way through BLACK IRIS. “Wow, really?” you may be thinking to yourself. “Was it that bad, Dill?” No. Don’t you dare. It was that good. It was that gritty. It was that passionate, powerful, gripping. Laney shackled her hands around my throat—so tiny and yet so strong—as her venomous words hissed in my ear. Believe me. Love me. Want me.

No, it took me three tries because I was pulled back into the mindset of someone with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). I know this mindset. I’ve lived it, worshiped it, regretted it, mourned it. You can go through the treatments Susanna Kaysen-style and receive a discharge that says you’re fit to rejoin society, but it never fully leaves you, which is one of the reasons why I loved BLACK IRIS so much. It takes mental illness and presents it in the most realistic light possible. Blythe and Laney’s mother struggle with Bi-Polar Disorder with its the manic highs and depressing lows. Blythe uses it to fuel her poetry and drug-fueled lifestyle. Mania leaves to feeling like you can handle anything, you’re indestructible, and the lows will never hit you again.

How do I know this? Well, 9 years ago I was diagnosed and sought treatment for Bi-Polar Disorder. Rehab. Hospitals. Therapy. Medication. The whole spiel. I know what it’s like to be facing life and death at the hands of mental illness—one’s spiraling out of control while the other quickly approaches. BLACK IRIS does justice to people who have these diagnoses. We make mistakes. We can be horrible people, who lash out at any and everyone that tries to help us. We can also be loving people who feel so deeply it cuts to the bone. I would be honest and say if this book was bullshit, if we were made to look like monsters. There’s a delicate balance that’s struck in just the right way. I felt like I was seeing my past self and both appreciating that I wasn’t this person while recognizing how I could easily become this person again.

You’ll feel it, the moment you crack. When the brittle hardness finally shatters. When the anger, hatred, resentment, loathing, everything crumbles, and all that’s left standing is the little girl who’d built those walls, wide-eyed, covered in dust.

Laney isn’t painted as the villain or the victim. She’s not the hero or even the antihero. She is the truth we don’t want to see, the dark side of ourselves we pretend isn’t there. Her head is bloody, but unbowed. BPD can be a constant feeling of instability and need to be destructive toward either yourself or other people. I hurt because it’s the only thing that grounds me to this world. Laney accepts that this is her personality and doesn’t want your pity. She doesn't need it. By commanding her pain and vices, she finds strength that allows her not to conquer her demons but unleash them upon her enemies. My what big teeth you have, Laney.

That’s the thing. Maybe we’re not really afraid of pain. Maybe we’re afraid of how much we might like it.

If you want a book that’s painted on the page like poetry and will ignite the darkest regions of your mind, read BLACK IRIS.

Thank you, Prince Dapper, for another amazing novel.


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